It’s hard to know if the “zipless fuck” will appeal to young women who have just gorged themselves on the BDSM proclivities of Christian Grey, and who watch Lena Dunham drop down to her skivvies every Sunday on HBO. But three different publishers are betting it will. The phrase, coined by Erica Jong in her multimillion-copy-selling 1973 novel Fear of Flying, is one that Henry Holt, Penguin, and Open Road hope can catch fire again, as they each prepare to release a new edition of the novel, tied to its 40th birthday.
While anniversaries offer publishers an opportunity to recapture sales, they present problems. Do readers really want a new edition of a book already available? Will press around the republication translate into new sales? Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, recently reissued by Norton to much media fanfare—coverage of the book, at 50, appeared in this magazine, as well as others, including the New York Times, Glamour, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and Slate—generated respectable, if not bestseller-worthy, sales. Norton told PW that total sales of the title since its February release hit about 20,000 copies. (That figure, a Norton spokesperson explained, covers the house’s 50th anniversary edition hardcover, a Norton critical edition also released for the anniversary, and an e-book edition.)
While Norton’s success with Friedan did not go unnoticed by the publishers involved in Jong’s anniversary push, they feel what they are doing is different. “We are not following [what Norton did for] The Feminine Mystique,” explained Barbara Jones at Holt, adding, “But when we saw what came out of that [campaign], and the attention [the book] got, we were not unhappy about it.”
Holt is going to press with an announced 50,000 copies of its $35 hardcover edition, which comes out on October 8 and features the jacket art from the 1973 first edition, plus a new introduction by Jennifer Weiner. The ambitious run, Jones said, is thanks to a number of events that made a flashier anniversary publication the logical choice. The initial idea was to do a new hardcover, because Holt does not currently have an edition available in the format. Then, Jones said, the Fifty Shades trilogy took off.
Fear of Flying is considered a feminist classic because, in large part, its narrator is a woman who wants, and enjoys, sex. At the time of its publication, that was both racy and risqué. Because of this, as Jones sees it, Jong’s novel was “kicked up a bunch” in conversations about the Fifty Shades trilogy. Those conversations, Jones elaborated, kept coming back to the idea that “there is this really great erotic book not to be forgotten.” Holt was intending to do something around the 40th anniversary long before E.L. James’s trilogy stormed the bestseller charts; that the series put Jong’s novel, and erotic fiction, back in the spotlight was, Jones said, “just a lucky coincidence.”
At around the same time that Holt was considering its reissue, Penguin decided to add Jong’s novel to its Classics line. The deluxe $17 trade paper Penguin Classics edition of Fear of Flying, which is getting an announced first printing of 35,000 copies (and coming out on September 24 with a new introduction by Theresa Rebeck), winks at the novel’s racy (by early 1970s standards) content—and the catchphrase it inspired—in its cover imagery.
Though none of the parties involved can say precisely who thought collaboration between publishers would be a good idea, all said the idea seemed a logical one. Tina Pohlman at Open Road Media, which has held the e-book world English rights to Fear of Flying since 2011, said the coordination will raise all boats. Pohlman added that she also doesn’t believe the marketing of multiple editions will cannibalize sales, because the marketing of one edition helps all editions. Open Road is re-releasing its $14.99 e-book edition with new cover art and a new introduction by Fay Weldon on October 18; Open Road is also releasing e-book editions of five of Jong’s backlist titles on October 8.
While all three publishers involved in the reissue said they can’t be sure about sales, there is a joint feeling that Fear of Flying, aside from being an “important” book, is something for new audiences to discover. Elda Rotor, overseeing the Penguin Classics title, said that while Fear of Flying shares the same spirit of pioneering feminist works like The Feminine Mystique, it’s Jong’s narrator, the self-deprecating, neurotic, painfully honest Isadora Wing, whom she thinks will attract new readers. Or, as Pohlman put it, it’s a book that, for all its significance, is “just a great read. I am such a sucker for voice, and it’s very voice-y.”
Jong is also finding renewed interest in her novel beyond U.S. borders. Jong’s representation at William Morris Endeavor confirmed that the first “nonpirated edition” of the novel is being readied for publication in China. WME also said that Jong, who appeared at the Hong Kong Book Festival last month, had “a million visitors a day.”
Stateside, Jong is amping up for, if not the kind of attention she got in China, a surge of interest; a spokesperson at Holt said she has hired a lecture agent to handle a growing list of events. Already set, among others, are early October appearances at New York City’s powerHouse Arena and Georgia’s Center for the Book in Decatur.
Jones hopes the anniversary will bring due homage to Jong, and new readers to Fear of Flying. “[This novel] is more durable than many things from the ’70s,” she told PW. “There is something now, in the age of Lena Dunham, where women are saying, ‘This is my story.’ ” As for Jong herself, Jones said, “[Erica] kicked the door open that a lot of people walked through.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Open Road is releasing e-book editions of five of Erica Jong’s backlist titles. The original story said Open Road was releasing print editions of these titles.